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Unearthing Angkorian secrets from an ancient workshop

The Bakong temple. Research at a 1,000-year-old sandstone workshop has provided tantalising clues about the economics of the period. Damian Evans
The Bakong temple. Research at a 1,000-year-old sandstone workshop has provided tantalising clues about the economics of the period. Damian Evans

Unearthing Angkorian secrets from an ancient workshop

Understanding the lives of those who ruled over and lived under the Khmer Empire motivates the teams that comb Cambodia looking for clues about their politics, economics and rituals. But with relatively few materials or records to work from, examination has largely been a patchwork of studies of finished elements such as the architectural ornamentations, bas reliefs and sculptures that remain centuries after they were first revealed.

One team has taken a different path: trying to understand the dynamics of economic activity through a particular craft specialisation, and the political and financial resources that fed one specific stone sculpture workshop buried within the sandy laneways and forested tracts to the west of the Bakong temple, 15 kilometres southeast of Angkor Wat.

This is the first Angkor-era stone sculpture workshop to be discovered, excavated and described in an academic paper. Among the layers of debris, the researchers deciphered a 400-year-long story of creation, power, population and skills management that led to surprises and, inevitably, even more questions.

Their findings were published in the most recent Bulletin of the Ecole Française d’Extrême Orient (EFEO), and describe a busy workshop whose life extends from virtually the earliest days of the empire all the way to the 12th century, when it was involved in a restoration of the Bakong temple – the first monumental pyramid temple associated with the Khmer Empire – which was most likely carried out under Suryavarman II, the king who built Angkor Wat.

Archaeologist Hou Nolamony points out the remains of a charcoal fire – evidence of habitation from before the 9th century.
Archaeologist Hou Nolamony points out the remains of a charcoal fire – evidence of habitation from before the 9th century. Nicky Sullivan

The team found considerable effort seems to have gone into incorporating specific types of sandstone for specific elements within the temples. Some came from the Terrain Rouge plain near Phnom Kulen; some from a site 100 kilometres east in what is now Kampong Thom. The origin of the remainder is unknown.

The logistics of sourcing and removing such a heavy and expensive material from one site to another reveal a great deal about the economic and political forces at work, says Dr Martin Polkinghorne of Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia.

“The workshop was part of a complex economic web of exchange that included barter and in-kind,” he says. “Because there was no money at Angkor, many people think Angkor was not interested in trade and commerce. This is not so.”

Many thousands of tons of sandstone passed through the hands of the craftsmen who worked at this site, and the logistics and finances involved in simply getting the material there would have been formidable. Yet the designers felt free to be particular enough to specify that the stone for the central linga should come from a river bed.

Transporting the sandstone to the site where it could be worked was a complex, expensive undertaking that required the power of a king and his state structure. This makes sense, say the report’s authors, because the primary patrons, and beneficiaries, of the power exercised through the temples were the kings and the elites who served them.

Martin Polkinghorne.
Martin Polkinghorne. Nicky Sullivan

The report notes how well the Angkorian elites understood the power of the temples and their sculptures to confer political legitimacy and spiritual authority. They consolidated that power by controlling the networks of production that sustained them. And, while revealing little about the lives of the craftsmen who served those elites, the sandstone tells us something of their artistry.

“Sandstone is extremely heavy and expensive,” says Polkinghorne, noting it is also difficult to work with. “If an artist made a mistake, the sculpture was ruined. It is a testament to the great Angkorian artists how few mistakes we see.”

Even at this early stage in the empire, the artists had highly developed skills. The Bakong temple, which has been compared to Borobudur in Java, could be considered a proving ground for the expertise that was perfected in the bas reliefs of Angkor Wat three centuries later.

But that is not to say that the expertise grew in a linear fashion over time. The researchers were surprised to discover that 12th-century statues imitated early 9th-century creations, and did so with considerably less finesse.

“Technical and artistic skill does not necessarily get better over time,” says Polkinghorne. “[They] are different because of the changing quality of materials and tools, customs of training, and standards of taste.”

An iron Angkor-era chisel from the site.
An iron Angkor-era chisel from the site. Nicky Sullivan

This finding throws some doubt over one of the traditional methods of dating sculptures, often based on specific design elements associated with specific periods such as the representation of a fold of a garment, hairstyle or posture, or the precision of carving.

It was traditionally thought that these elements were not interchangeable across generations as later sculptors (and their kings) would have no interest in being associated with earlier eras. This can no longer be taken for granted.

The later works underline something else too, says Polkinghorne. With proof of a living, working population around the Bakong temple centuries after its founding king – Indravarman I – had died, our understanding of the scale of Angkor expands.

“By demonstrating that Roluos and the Bakong temple were active in the 12th century, concurrently with an urban centre around Angkor Wat, we can appreciate the scale of Angkor as an enormous preindustrial city,” he says.

The workshop was formally discovered in 1994 when an EFEO team was relocating two large and incomplete sandstone statues found outside the Bakong temple’s outer enclosures. In the course of moving the statues to protect them from looting, large piles of sandstone debris were identified, and the site was earmarked as a likely production hub.

“There were many different workshops making many different things at Angkor,” Polkinghorne says, “[including] many highly specialised occupations including builders, carpenters and stonemasons.”

With funding from the Australian Research Council, the team – led by the APSARA National Authority, and working with Janet G Douglas from the Freer and Arthur M Sackler Galleries at the Smithsonian Institution, and Federico Carò of The Metropolitan Museum – started their dig in 2011.

A ninth-century statue (left) which, surprisingly, has a more refined style than the 12th-century statue (right). Conservation d’Angkor
A ninth-century statue (left) which, surprisingly, has a more refined style than the 12th-century statue (right). Conservation d’Angkor

Intriguingly, a nearby shop-owner told them that his family had always lived on this side of the Bakong temple, and revealed how his grandfather had told him that the ancestors made sculptures there.

But many questions remain. Clearly, specialised crafts were key to establishing and maintaining spiritual and temporal power in the Angkorian Empire. Less certain is how different specialisations – stone, metal, ceramic and others – functioned within that framework.

Polkinghorne says the discovery of the artists’ studio and the associated research carried out at the site are just “one of a handful of archaeological projects revealing how Angkor the city and the kingdom worked.

Other researchers are making exciting new discoveries in the fields of metals and ceramics”.

Meanwhile, the Bakong temple continues to be a place of worship. The pagoda just within the enclosure walls on the east side of the temple, whose murals were restored in 2011, continues to serve nearby communities.

And their access along the eastern stone causeway is marked by giant, prone nagas who still guide their passage from the material world to the sacred, 1,100 years after their creators first set to work.

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